Christianity 201

June 7, 2018

Is God a Cosmic Tyrant?

by Clarke Dixon

Is God a cosmic tyrant?
Is God in control of absolutely everything?
Are natural disasters a matter of his choice for the world?
Are your personal disasters a result of his decisions for your life?
Are our own decisions merely illusion, that in fact, God has foreordained even what we think we have decided, even when we choose actions that are sinful and cause incredible harm to ourselves and others?

Or perhaps God is not in control at all and just set everything going? All that happens is a matter of our free choice and what happens naturally.

The Bible pushes us toward belief in the sovereignty of God. Consider, for example Psalm 139 especially the latter part of verse 16:

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:16 NRSV)

So then God is a cosmic tyrant? Our favourite prayer might become that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “yet not my will but yours” (Mark 14:36), prayed with a tone of resignation: “Whatever you come up with, Lord, I will put up with.”

There are problems with this line of thinking:

First; the Bible does not present the sovereignty of God as something to be resigned to, but something to be excited about and find encouragement in. If you were an actor tasked with portraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, how would you perform his prayer as he faces arrest and execution? Would it be with resignation, or with determination? Would you say the lines in a way that communicates “I think Your will is terrible, but I will if I must”, or “I know Your will is best, and yes, let’s do this”? Whatever the tone of Jesus as he prayed it, the hours that followed were not moments of resignation, but of determination and decisions that reflected his knowledge that good things were truly ahead. And good things did come! Jesus was raised from the dead and our sins were dealt with. Knowing that God’s will is good we can find encouragement that our future is not determined by chance, or even by our own poor choices, but by the good purposes of God:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

“All things” includes things that happen naturally within Creation and human decision. We can be excited about how God is shaping things that would otherwise cause fear and panic.

Second; The sovereignty of God is not a cold philosophical proposition, but rather a comforting reality. Sometimes we take something written for our encouragement and imagine it is written for our theological curiosity. The Psalmist in Psalm 139 is not a professor trying to work out the details of life from the comfort of a Lazyboy in preparation for a lecture. The Psalmist is someone going through real life struggles. We might summarize the whole of Psalm 139 like this: “I can hide nothing from you, nor flee from your presence. See that I am innocent, and the person threatening my life is not. I need justice to prevail and for you to reward the innocent party (me), not the guilty (them).” Perhaps we can relate to this Psalm. Yes, we all sin, but sometimes there really is nothing we have done to deserve this cancer, or that Parkinson’s, or that ill treatment from someone we thought was a friend. We can relate to the Psalmist and say something very similar, “Lord, I am your child, yet I am under siege by people or circumstances”. In those moments, we don’t need a theology textbook. We need God and we need the outcome to be in His hands.

Third: The sovereignty of God is not something we can fully grasp. Sometimes we take something that is true and try to turn in into something that is understandable. No professor or Bible teacher, no matter how smart and knowledgeable, could ever really understand everything there is to know about God anyway.

While we often might long for the “patience of Job”, the Book of Job is really about humility in the face of deep questions. After so many words were spilled on trying to make sense of Job’s suffering, God finally speaks near the end of the book. But in speaking he does not give answers. He only asks questions. And what was Job supposed to learn from that? That he, Job himself, is not God, neither are his friends, and that God’s ways may be beyond understanding.

We are not always going to have the answers. We learn to live with the questions. We learn to trust God despite our lack of understanding. God has the future in His hands, even if we cannot understand how.

So what do we mean by saying that God is sovereign? Has he already decided what all our decisions will be? I am reminded of the expression, “when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you”. Or, does God in his sovereignty allow things to unfold, naturally, and as consequences of our decisions, but only according to his purposes. Let us consider Psalm 139:16 again:

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:16 NRSV)

This verse does not tell us if what is written is prescriptive or descriptive, or somehow, both. Is God’s “book” a to do list as God unfolds history? Or, is it a book in which God writes down how history unfolds as he foresees it, as a historian might, but before the events rather than after?  Or does God in his omniscience and omnipotence see what unfolds, but makes the necessary adjustments to ensure the story turns out well?

We can think of a manager of a hockey team who might like the ability to see ahead of time which players will excel in the future, then being able to adjust the rosters based on that foreknowledge. The team could be massaged into a Stanley Cup win.

Perhaps sometimes we think of God as a thing to be studied and understood, rather than a Father, to be in relationship with and enjoyed. As parents, we sometimes allow our boys to experience the consequences of their own decisions. And sometimes we make the decisions that will help them flourish. None of this is done according to a formula, and our boys may never understand us. It is done in relationship, it is a matter of love.

So is God a tyrant? No, God is a loving Heavenly Father. But what if I cannot figure out how the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty squares with my experience of free-will? You can trust God in real life circumstances much sooner than you will be able to fully comprehend Him in a classroom. That is much better anyway!


Clarke Dixon is the Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.

Listen to the audio of the full sermon on which this based (35 minutes).

clarkedixon.wordpress.com

 

May 14, 2016

Is There a Conflict Between Predestination and Prayer?

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NIV Luke 11:5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This is Chapter 15 of a 1982 book Why Pray: An Exposition of Luke 11:5-13 and Related Verses by Dr. Spiros Zodhiates, best known as the originator of the Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible available in several translations.

God has made everything; He knows how everything works; He knows what everybody will do.  Why, then, does He tell us to pray, when He already knows what the end result will be?  What difference does it make whether we ask, seek and knock?

There are two things that are clearly indicated throughout the Word of God, and especially by Jesus Christ in the Gospels, and we might as well accept them because they come from Him.  One is God’s sovereignty.  He sends rain whenever He wants it to rain.  He sends snow whenever He wants it to snow.  Whatever He wants to do, He does and we cannot hinder Him or influence Him in the doing of it.  He is sovereign.  We can’t change that.

But the fact also remains that He wants us to pray, and that is just as much a part of His sovereignty as everything else.  He says, “Pray, ask, seek, knock.”  The fact that He wants us to pray is a recognition of the sovereign freedom of our will.  He has given us freedom of will to come to Him, the omnipotent, all-sovereign God, as a Father and talk to Him about our needs.

If God entered a heart against its will, He would be violating the freedom of will with which He created us.  Only when our will voluntarily comes into harmony with His will can we ask and expect to receive.

Now, there is something we must understand about the Lord’s prefacing the words, “Ask, seek, knock” with the declaration, “And I, myself, say unto you,” and that is He has the authority to say so.  He is the Creator, and “in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).  Here He is declaring that He is God Himself.  he is the Creator, and the Sustainer, also, of all things.  As the Sustainer of all things He is able to hear us and to do what we ask if it is in accordance with His eternal will – or even to give us something better than what we, in our limited wisdom, ask for.  John 1:3 says, “By him were all things made, and there isn’t a thing that was made that wasn’t made by him.

Colossians 1:17 is a mind-boggling verse, which I’ll translate directly from the Greek: “And he it is who is before all things, and all things in him consist.”  In other words, in Him everything holds together.  He is the cohesive force of everything.

Have you ever thought what happens when you ask something from God and then another child of God asks exactly the opposite? Take a farmer who needs rain and another believer who needs sunshine. Now since God cannot please both, what will He do?  In His eternal wisdom and providence, He will answer in a way that will best further his plans. If the believer needs the sunshine more than the farmer needs the rain, then God may bring the sunshine. Otherwise, He might bring rain – unless, of course, in His larger view of the needs of all, or His plans for all, He sends what is best for all. Our prayers are often so competing that when the Lord looks from above He must decide what is best from His own point of view. Unlike a human parent, He is not perplexed as to whom to please.  Have you ever had this happen:  one child in your family wants to do one thing and another child wants to do the opposite, and you as a parent don’t know what to do? I sometimes think it is not easy for God to be God. He created, He sustains everything, and I’m glad that He sees all of humanity from above and answers accordingly.

February 26, 2015

The Judas Effect

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 He [Judas] did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
 (John 12:6)

As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
 (John 13:27)

Judas is an interesting character, to say the very least. Like the thief on the cross, he is one of a number of exceptions to the rule, and many speculate as to what might have been if his betrayal had worked out like Peter’s denial and he had been restored. One writer suggests:

I do think that Judas was one of the very few in the Bible who did not have a free will, and was destined to betray Jesus actually from before the foundation of the world.

Another writes,

To summarize, be careful where you place Judas. He did the will of the Father and fulfilled the Scriptures. Peter, who we all love, tried to prevent Jesus’ crucifixion and was called “Satan” by our Lord. Peter, who was not mindful of the will of God, was restored. Was it not Jesus who said, “”For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50) Be careful about placing Jesus’s brother, Judas, in Christendom’s “hell.” One day you may have to look up to Judas, instead of looking down on him. Peter denied him three times in one night while Judas declared Jesus innocent in front of the High Priesthood. Judas had a very important job in the Kingdom of God. For three and one half years, as a Priest he inspected the Lamb of God as an unbiased man. He was not “one of them” a Galilean. He was the outsider. He did his job perfectly. If Judas really wanted to mess things up, he could have agreed with the High Priesthood and called Him a “blasphemer” who claimed to be the Son of God when He really wasn’t. But Judas declared the Lamb spotless and unblemished*, the Perfect Passover.

*“I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” (Matthew 27:4a)

Where I wanted us to look today however is when did Judas go bad? The second of our opening verses suggests a particular time when “Satan entered into him.” It’s interesting that there is absolutely no variance on this phrase in any English Bible translations, though the AMP adds, “and took possession.”

The first verse however shows him to be embezzling money from the funds used to support Jesus and The Twelve in their ministry. (We know that many of the contributors and supporters were women, along with men.)

So if we look at a continuum of Jesus ministry, with one end beginning with the calling of the disciples, the scripture reading in the temple, and the turning of water into wine; and the other end consisting of the Passover meal, the arrest and betrayal; we see some rather bad behavior on Judas’ part long before Satan ‘entered’ him. There is evidence of something wrong before we would place an “X” on that continuum to mark what happened in the upper room.

Question: If it was found that the treasurer of your church was helping himself to money from the offerings or church bank account, would you necessarily say that Satan had entered into him?

Judas’ petty thievery is used to show that he was bad from the beginning, and is used to justify the position that he was never fully committed to Christ, but the scripture indicates that something especially significant happened as he exited that Passover meal to carry out his plan.

Again, it’s pointed out that:

[Acts 1] affirms that Judas was one of theirs in number and fellowship with ministration.* In other words, Judas worked cooperatively and in concert with the other disciples. There is no mention of his not being a good and faithful member of the group.

*v. 17 “…he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.”

I John 2:19 paints a broader picture of people who ‘share in the ministry’ but then do not continue in the faith:

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

The Reformation Study Bible says of this:

Paul too warns against false teachers who will arise from among the believers (Acts 20:29–31). As in the case of Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:9–24), visible membership in the church does not guarantee salvation. Inward apathy or hostility to the gospel may be masked by outward conformity. The false teachers revealed their hostility not just by leaving, but by the way they left. Because they went out to oppose the word of the gospel, their departure was as much a renunciation of the church and its message as was Judas’s departure from the Last Supper (John 13:30).

Some say this is also a picture of the Antichrist.

What is the point of studying Judas in such detail and what can we learn? This is just my opinion, but I believe that even though the Biblical picture is of a more dramatic turn taking place during that Last Supper meal, the events in Judas’ life compounded, one on top of the other.

Another commentator puts it this way:

Somewhere in Judas’ life, he took an evil turn that eventually resulted in rejection of Jesus Christ as His Lord and Savior and eventual suicide. One bad attitude toward Jesus led to another, and a pattern of rejection and bitterness must have led to the ultimate rejection of Jesus.

and later writes,

Judas confessed his sin without repentance. There was no radical change in his mind that resulted in a change from spiritual death to spiritual life through faith in Jesus Christ. True repentance would have turned him to Jesus for forgiveness.

Does any of this resonate with you because of a person or situation you know? Let’s end with some encouragement from Galatians 6: 1

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.


I want to acknowledge Michael Card’s book, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, for getting me thinking about this topic.


Go Deeper: Here’s The Message translation of I John 5:16-17 to get you thinking further along this topic. Use online Bible resources to help unpack this passage:

16-17 For instance, if we see a Christian believer sinning (clearly I’m not talking about those who make a practice of sin in a way that is “fatal,” leading to eternal death), we ask for God’s help and he gladly gives it, gives life to the sinner whose sin is not fatal. There is such a thing as a fatal sin, and I’m not urging you to pray about that. Everything we do wrong is sin, but not all sin is fatal.

Go Deeper Still: Some of today’s passages bear on issues dealing with free will and predestination, as well as the eternal security of the believer (perseverance of the saints). The verse in I John often is used to support the semantic idea that such people were “never saved in the first place.”  How do you see that verse fitting in?

 

March 27, 2014

What Does God Know, And When Does He Know It?

Ezekiel 33:13 If I tell a righteous person that they will surely live, but then they trust in their righteousness and do evil, none of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered; they will die for the evil they have done. 14 And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right— 15 if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil—that person will surely live; they will not die.

I don’t have a particular agenda here at Christianity 201, and we frequently include articles from people who have very opposite viewpoints on certain doctrinal issues. Currently there is a lot of talk about open theism and I include this article here only because I find this sort of thing stretches me and gets me thinking. We’ve covered this topic before here in 2010, and here in 2011. The author here is Ryan Robinson and the article is titled The Biblical Arguments for Open Theism.

There are a few categories of texts that support open theism. Many will also be surprised to find that there are a lot. I won’t nearly cover them all here, but I will take a sampling primarily from Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God. Boyd’s argument which I agree with is that classical (Calvinist and Arminian) theologians essentially ignore these texts and when explicitly asked about them dismiss them as metaphorical while still holding that texts otherwise identical are obviously literally true of all knowledge. The Open Theist view is simple: take all the texts seriously instead of picking and choosing based on a Greek philosophy presupposition. If you do, you’ll inevitably end up at a view of a partially settled and partially open future.

A God Who Regrets

Before the flood, “The LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis 6:6) How can God be sorry for how humanity turned out if he knew all along that it was going to turn out this way?

God intends to bless Saul and his household for many generations (1 Sam 13:13). However, Saul goes against God and so God’s plan for him changed – the blessing was revoked. God says that “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me.” (1 Sam 15:10) and it later says again that “the LORD was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Sam 15:35) Again, how can God regret his decision and even revoke his intended blessing if he knew Saul was going to turn away the whole time?

A God Who Asks About the Future

God sometimes expresses the uncertainty of the future outright. He asks Moses, “how long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Num. 14:11) God asks Hosea “how long will they [Israel] be incapable of innocence?” (Hosea 8:5; cf 1 Kings 22:20). Are these just rhetorical questions? Maybe, and I wouldn’t dismiss that interpretation as much as I would dismiss interpretations of some of the other texts here. However, there isn’t any reason to suggest that they are just rhetorical, especially when you consider that God continued to try futilely for centuries to bring the Israelites to him.

A God Who Must Face the Unexpected

God says sometimes things didn’t work out as he expected. For example, in Isaiah, the Lord is describing Israel as his vineyard and himself as the owner and says that he “expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (5:2) and then “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (5:4) If God knows every detail of the future in advance, how could he expect one thing and then experience something different?

Jeremiah provides some more good examples: “I thought, ‘After she had done all this she will return to me’; but she did not return” (Jer. 3:6-7) and “I thought how I would set you among my children… and I thought you would call me My Father and would not turn from following me. Instead, as a faithless wife… you have been faithless to me.” (Jer. 3:19-20) So did God actually think these things and turned out to expect incorrectly because of our free will, or is he lying and he actually knew all along what would happen? Those are our only two options – either he did think it as he said or he didn’t think it. God also expresses shock at Israel’s behaviour by saying they were doing things “which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind” (Jer. 19:5; also 7:31; 32:35).

A God Who Gets Frustrated

This is a huge theme throughout the Hebrew Bible. But how can God be frustrated that things happened which he knew was going to happen? Or in the Calvinist perspective, how can God be frustrated if things happened exactly as he ordained them to happen? God gets frustrated at Moses in Exodus 4:10-15 and eventually relents to enlist Aaron to speak instead of Moses.

God repeatedly expresses frustration in the prophets as well, such as in Ezekiel when he says “I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it: but I found no one. Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them.” That one is also really interesting because it provides a very practical meaning to prayer – not just changing us which is very important but also changing God’s mind. To the main point, though, can you really get frustrated when you look for somebody and don’t find them, if you really knew they weren’t there the whole time? It would be like me scrounging around the house all day looking for a $100 bill even though I know there wasn’t one, then yelling at my housemate when I can’t find it.

A God Who Tests Our Character

This is arguably the strongest theme of all. God repeatedly tests the character of people. But if God already knew all the results, then the testing would just be toying with people. God tests Abraham with the binding of Isaac, and then God says “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son” (Gen 22:12) which is very different from “I already knew you feared me and that you would not withhold your son, but I felt like doing this anyway.” We could again say that this is rhetorical, but that isn’t what the text says – it says that he knows since Abraham didn’t withhold. God also tests Hezekiah “to know all that was in his heart” (2 Chron. 32:31) which implies that God didn’t know before that. Otherwise he wasn’t really testing to know him and God is again a liar.

There are lots of examples of corporate testing as well. Moses tells the Israelites that the 40 years in the desert were “in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you could keep his commandments” (Deut. 8:2) and then that with the false prophets God “is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul” (Deut. 13:1-3). God withholds assistance in battle “in order to test Israel, whether or not they would take care to walk in the way of the LORD as their ancestors did” (Judg. 2:22) and left Israel’s opponents alone “for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the LORD” (Judg. 3:4). When God provides bread in the desert, he commands them only to take what they need to “test them whether they will follow my instruction or not” (Exod 16:4).

This motif in particular I’ve barely touched on as I know it is a big one throughout Scripture. But how can God test to know our character if he already knows our character? Maybe God can test so that we know our character, but that’s not what the text says. Is the text wrong? Was God lying?

A Bunch More to Look Up for Yourself

These texts are barely scratching the surface as I said at the beginning. Here’s some more listed in brief with no room for extra discussion, but they’re mostly the same ideas:

Numbers 11:1-2. Numbers 14:12-20. Numbers 16:20-35. Numbers 16:41-48. Judges 10:13-16. 1 Samuel 23: 10-13. 2 Samuel 24:12-16 (1 Chronicles 21:7-13). 2 Samuel 24:17-25. 1 Kings 21:21-29. 2 Kings 13:3-5. 2 Chronicles 7:12-14. Jeremiah 7:5-7. Jeremiah 38:17-18, 21. Ezekiel 20:5-22. Ezekiel 33:13-15. Hosea 11:8-9. Matthew 25:41. Acts 15:7. Acts 21:10-12.

I’m willing to bet there are a lot more, but I just did a relatively quick skim through the book and had already come up with enough to make a 1300 word blog post, and I think the point has been made. Not like so many of the opponents of open theism say, it is a position that is deeply grounded in Scripture.

January 15, 2013

The Ever-Present Problem of Evil

Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will.
~J.B. Phillips as cited in today’s reading.

Issues dealing with the Bible’s view of issues involving gender and sexuality are on the top of the list of issues the uncommitted have with Christianity, and also up there among their objections is the problem of why there is suffering and evil in the world. In his classic work, Know Why You Believe, the late Paul E. Little discusses this.

…We must also recognize that God could stamp out evil if he chose. Jeremiah reminds us, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed because his compassions fail not. (Lamentations 3:22 KJ) A time is coming when he will stamp out evil in the world. In the meantime, God’s love and grace prevail and his offer of mercy and pardon is still open.

If God were to stamp out evil today, he would do a complete job. His action would have to include our lies and personal impurities, our lack of love and our failure to do good. Suppose God were to decree that at midnight tonight all evil would be removed from the universe — who of us would still be here after midnight?

…To speculate about the origin of evil is endless. No one has the full answer.  It belongs in the category of “the secret things [that] belong to the Lord our God” (Deut 29:29)…

…[quoting Hugh Evans Hopkins] “The problem arises largely from the belief that a ‘good’ God would reward each man according to his deserts and that an ‘almighty’ God would have no difficulty in carrying this out. The fact that rewards and punishments, in the way of happiness and discomfort, appear to be haphazardly distributed in this life drives many to question either the goodness of God or his power.”

But would God be good if he were to deal with each person exactly according to his behavior? Consider what this would mean in your own life! The whole of the gospel as previewed in the Old and New Testaments is that God’s goodness consists not only in his justice, but also in his love, mercy and kindness. How thankful all men should be that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, or requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him” (Ps. 103:10, 11).

The concept of the goodness of God in which he deals with a person on the basis of “just deserts” is also based on the faulty assumption that happiness is the greatest good in life… Sometimes in his infinite wisdom, God knows there are things to be accomplished in our character that can be brought only through suffering. To shield us from this suffering would be to rob us of a greater good. Peter refers to this when he says, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish and strengthen you” (I Pet. 5:10).

…That there may be a connection between suffering and sin is evident, but that it is not always so is abundantly clear. There is the unambiguous word of Jesus himself on the subject. The disciples apparently adhered to the direct retribution theory of suffering. One day when they say a man who had been blind from birth, they wanted to know who had sinned to cause this blindness — the man or his parents. Jesus made it clear that neither was responsible for his condition, “but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9: 1-3).

…[O]ne of the profound truths of the whole of scripture is that the judgment of God is preceded by warning. Throughout the Old Testament we have the repeated pleading of God and warning of judgment. Only after warning is persistently ignored and rejected does judgment come. God’s poignant words are an example: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked… turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel” (Ez 33:11).

From there, Little goes on to discuss the issue of judgment, justice and God’s wrath in general, and the issue of hell in particular. With over a million copies in print, this book continues to be helpful to many, and I would recommend making a print copy part of your library.

I want to end with the first two scriptures in updated translations:

AMP – Lam. 3:22 It is because of the Lord’s mercy and loving-kindness that we are not consumed, because His [tender] compassions fail not.

CEB – Lam. 3:22 Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!

NLT – Deut. 29:29 “The Lord our God has secrets known to no one. We are not accountable for them, but we and our children are accountable forever for all that he has revealed to us, so that we may obey all the terms of these instructions.

MSG – Deut. 29:29 God, our God, will take care of the hidden things but the revealed things are our business. It’s up to us and our children to attend to all the terms in this Revelation.

February 6, 2012

Jeff Mikels Fields Some Questions – Part One

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I love it when pastors do a Q&A (question and answer) session after their sermons.  It creates immediacy and a bit of vulnerability.  Jeff Mikels is the pastor of Lafayette Community Church in Indiana, and had a few leftover questions that made it into his blog. 

Some of the questions may apply to your interests.  Each question is a link to the full article.  The first one is complete, but for the rest you’ll have to click to read the full answer.  You should leave specific comments on the applicable article.  I like the quality of his answers to the point where I’m going to steal three more here tomorrow!

The Church: Can you be a Christian without going to church?

This past Sunday, I ended our service by taking some live questions from the congregation, but I wasn’t able to address all the questions live. Therefore I’m tackling some of them through this blog.

Does this mean that you cannot be a Christian unless you go to church?

The simple answer is that you can be a Christian without going to church if you define “Christian” to mean “I have been saved.” (Salvation does not depend on going to church or anything else you do. It is a gift from God. See Ephesians 2:8-10). You can also be a Christian without going to church if you define “church” as “an event where I show up, sit, soak, and leave 60 minutes later.”

However, if you define Christian to mean “follower of Jesus” and if you understand “church” to mean “the universal family of God, specifically expressed in local fellowships” then you can’t be a Christian and intentionally avoid the church. Reading the rest of Ephesians will make it clear that God did not save us to be isolated individuals destined for heaven. To the contrary, Jesus died for us to cleanse us of sin and thereby bring us into God’s family! Reading 1 John will remind you that you can’t love God and hate his family.

Even more strongly, John speaks of people who were once part of his church and then decided to leave the church:

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. — 1 John 2:19

To state it strongly, every true follower of Jesus will pursue frequent fellowship with other believers that involves locality, leadership, mutual submission, expression of gifts, discipleship, evangelism, ministry, and worship. Any fellowship expressing all of that is rightly called a church.

The Father: God’s will and human freedom

At the end of our service last Sunday, I took some live questions from the congregation. An interesting pattern revealed itself. Here are all the questions that came in:

  • How do you mix all knowing, all powerful, and free will? Do we mess up his plan? Or does he choose not to know what we are doing so as not to compromise our free will?
  • Can you expand the reality of God’s power & righteousness as it applies to being in or “outside” of God’s will?
  • If the Bible doesn’t discuss a particular issue, is the answer always “It’s God’s Will”?
  • If God knows the future, why did He create us if He knew we would fall?

Each question came from a different person, but nearly every question addressed the issue of how God’s will relates to human free will.

The relationship between God’s will and human free will is nearly as complicated as understanding how God is by nature one and three at the same time. However, it’s far less essential to our understanding of God than is the notion of the Trinity, so there has never been consensus among Christians regarding how the two relate. There are many different ways Christian scholars have understood the relationship…  [continue reading here]

The Church: Why Sundays?

This past Sunday, I ended our service by taking some live questions from the congregation, but I wasn’t able to address all the questions live. Therefore I’m tackling some of them through this blog.

If the church is the community of believers who are to be continually gathering and working to build the kingdom, why do we meet on Sunday mornings the way we do? How does this fit and/or conflict with the picture of the church in Acts?

 

One of the claims I made on Sunday was that modern day people who say things like “I don’t want to go to church, I want to be the church” as an excuse to not be a regular part of a local church are fooling themselves. Of course, I agree that no one should merely “go to church” because in the Bible, “church” isn’t something you go to. “Church” in the New Testament refers to the people not an event or a location. Therefore, no individual can “be the church” because “the church” by definition (based on the word Jesus used: ekklesia) is an association of people. If anyone is “being” the church, they are being the church with other people.

Anyway, in discussing that point, I reminded everyone that if they don’t want to go to church on Sunday, they don’t have to. They could do what the first century Christians did and meet every day in public places and in people’s homes. I was speaking a bit facetiously because I knew that the expression of Christianity found in the book of Acts would be rather difficult to reproduce in the hustle and bustle of modern American society.

Nevertheless, this question (quoted above) is profoundly applicable to us today. Basically, the point is that if first century Christianity was so “organic” and ingrained in every part of life, why do we reduce modern Christianity to Sunday worship?

I have to answer this question by dealing with it in two different ways…[continue reading here]

December 7, 2011

Deconstructing Depravity, Totally

Oh Oh! We’ve used up our three wishes. Apparently Jim Greer’s writing has already graced the pages of Christianity 201 three times, including some rather recently.  But how could I let this one pass? It’s just too good not to have you all consider this topic. So you can do the polite thing and click over to Not For Itching Ears, or you can simply keep reading the post here which I have stolen borrowed. Jim, I promise, one more and we’ll put you on the payroll.  For the rest of us, I guess instead of reading at the newsstand, we should just buy a subscription…  (Click now!  This means you! Yes, you!)

Could the Doctrine of Total Depravity be Totally Depraved?

Over here at Not For Itching Ears we like to discuss issues that challenge our view of Christianity and the Church.   It is healthy to consider what one believes about the Christian faith and how we express that faith in our corporate church life.  If all we ever do is listen to ourselves, we can inadvertently become the kind of people Paul warned Timothy about:  People who surround themselves with “teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.”  Today’s post is an attempt to counter that tendency among us as we discuss the Doctrine of  Total Depravity.  To do this, we turn to a passage from  “Reconsidering Tulip”by Alexander J. Renault.  It is written from an Orthodox perspective.

Like many of you, I have always assumed that Total Depravity was a doctrine universally accepted by the church of all ages.  But I was wrong.  It is a rather new concept.  In fact the early church fathers, categorically rejected the idea.  That troubles me a lot.  If Paul understood humanity to be totally depraved or to have a total inability, why did his disciples and the disciples after him flat-out deny it?  Calvinism doesn’t work without this idea, so I can see why we would hesitate to even discuss it.  It wasn’t until Calvin that this idea became the unquestionable doctrine it has become.

I don’t think this article settles the question, but the author does bring out some interesting things that most of probably have not considered.

So, let the Discussion begin…

“The immediate concomitant of the first sin was the total depravity of human nature. The contagion of his sin at once spread through the entire man, leaving no part of his nature untouched, but vitiating every power and faculty of body and soul.” Louis Berkhof

The ontological problem with Total depravity is with the word “nature.” According to Total depravity, our very nature has changed. But what is a nature? In technical terms, “nature” refers to the essence of something—that which makes a thing a thing at its deepest level.

The early church Fathers used the term ousia for nature or essence. God is one nature (ousia) and three persons. Christ and the Father are of the same ousia. The incarnate Christ has two natures—human and divine.

So, if humans are intrinsically sinful in their essence (i.e. “sinful nature”), then God created sin. The Reformed will of course argue, “No, man was created with a good nature, but that nature changed.” But how can a nature change? A nature is the definition of a thing, and can only be defined by the one who creates the thing. What is the nature of a brick, for example? It’s a small, rectangular, hand-held fire-baked building block. If a single brick is broken, it doesn’t change the definition of brick nature. even if someone destroys every brick in the world, that still doesn’t change the definition of what a brick is. It doesn’t change brick nature. A man cannot change his nature any more than a brick could change its nature. Only God can change the nature/definition/essence of a thing. But to do so would make God the author of sin. . . . . . .

To take it to a more personal level, did God make you personally? Did He knit you together in your mother’s womb? If not, then God is not your creator, and I suppose it doesn’t matter what He thinks. But if He did create you, then what kind of nature did He create you with? A good nature, or a sinful nature? The answer that the church has historically given is that you are created with a good nature. You are created in the image of God. You are created to be an icon of God—a picture of God, here on earth.

But like a gold ring in a pile of manure, we are glorious creatures bound by sin and corruption. The nature or value of the gold ring doesn’t change, even if the environment does. Likewise, it is difficult for our true nature to be seen when we’re buried in a stinking pile of death and rot.

. . . . . Again, if sin is intrinsic to humanity, then Adam wasn’t human before he fell, nor will we be human when we’re in heaven, where there will be no sin. But if sin is foreign to our true nature, foreign to the image of god, then it makes little sense to say that we have a “sinful nature” . . . .

. . . . Another major problem is encountered when we confuse person with nature. What is a person? We might say that it is a unique manifestation of a nature. The early greeks used the term hypostasis for person and ousia for nature. Christ is one person (hypostasis) with two natures (ousia). The Trinity is one in essence, but with three persons (hypostases). There is only one human nature (or “humanity”) expressed uniquely in six billion different human persons. . . .

. . . The doctrine of Total depravity states that we are “utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to turn to Christ in faith for salvation.” This is because, as Berkhof says, we have depraved natures, and we only choose what our nature dictates. In other words, we cannot help but to choose sin, because we have a sinful nature. But is choice a function of person or of nature?  Do people choose to do things or do natures choose to do things? I believe it’s a function of person, not nature.

Think about this idea of person vs. nature with the Trinity: God is one divine nature (ousia) and three persons (hypostases). can “holiness” be separated from God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit? No, because holiness is an aspect of God’s nature. It is a natural attribute. Can “incarnation” be separated from God the Father? Yes. God the Father was not incarnate, but the Son was. Thus, incarnation is a personal attribute of the second person of the Trinity, not a natural attribute shared by all three persons of the godhead. . . .

. . . . Likewise, sin is a personal attribute and not a natural/essential one. If our choice to act sinfully was from our nature, then that would imply that all of our actions are simply the result of what our nature dictates. But the problem with that line of reasoning is that God Himself couldn’t help but to create, redeem, etc., because it’s His nature and not His personal free choice. This would mean that God created the world not because He chose to, but because He had to, according to His nature. He saved us not because He chose to, but because He had to, according to His nature. I’m inclined rather to agree with St. Patrick of Ireland, who said that the lord “gladly and of His own free will pardoned me.”

We can begin to see how a confusion of person and nature leads to a very limited God with no free choice. . . .

. . . . of vital importance to the discussion on Total depravity, and unfortunately all but neglected by most Reformed in my experience, is the doctrine of the incarnation. This brings the discussion of human nature out of the simply anthropological realm and into the christological realm.

The crux of the matter is this: if Christ did not have a human nature, then He cannot save us. If Christ was fully human, but not fully God, then He cannot bring us up to God. If He is fully God but not fully human, then He cannot come completely down to us and bridge the gap between us and God. The first several ecumenical councils of the church all dealt with this issue.

It is generally agreed among the Reformed that Christ was fully God and fully human. Unfortunately, the implications of this are not always understood by the Reformed. For if Christ is fully human, then He must have a human soul, a human will, a human mind—in short, a human nature. And yet He was without sin. This tells us that sin is not an integral part of human nature, and that one is still human apart from sin. Otherwise, either 1) christ was just as sinful as we are, or else 2) christ wasn’t fully human and can’t really save us.

John 1:14 – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Heb 2:11, 17 – For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren … Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High priest in things pertaining to God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.

This Hebrews passage is especially significant regarding Christ’s  human nature. It says that “in all things” He had to be made human.   And yet He was without sin. This would suggest that “sin nature” is in  fact foreign to true “human nature.

For Another interesting discussion on a topic you may have always assumed could not be challenged, see our series of articles called “A Compelling Argument AGAINST Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) or our series called “A Strong Argument Against Calvinism?”

~Jim Greer

For today, I’m closing comments here in order to encourage you to generate discussion at the source blog, where Jim is, I’m sure, more prepared to deal with issues arising from today’s discussion than I would be !!  I’m sure that for some of you this strikes at the heart of all you hold dear, but remember that ‘holding dear’ shouldn’t be the basis of establishing a personal, systematic theology for any of us.

November 6, 2011

The Five Points of Arminianism

For the past month, Bruxy Cavey, the teaching pastor of The Meeting House, Canada’s largest multi-site church and author of The End of Religion (NavPress) has been going through the issues of Calvinism.  He states almost weekly that the “issues” are actually “non-issues” for Arminians, but for Calvinists there is a sense in which The Five Points of Calvinism equals “The Gospel;” an observation with which I would concur.  He’s tackling the issue somewhat because of requests, and somewhat because in a very real sense, if you say nothing, then the largest number of voices and loudest voices in the room appear to be the only voices.

Most of you know that the Calvinist doctrine in its most basic form is represented by the acronym TULIP.  I won’t repeat the points here, but it is ubiquitous on the internet.  (This one is typical, or this one.)

Now, Bruxy didn’t say this, but I recently heard that the Arminian position should be represented by DAISY,  but not the acronym as I just typed it, but the word “daisy” in the sense of “He loves me…  He loves me not…  He loves me…  He loves me not…”   Call it dry theological humor.

Bruxy instead used the acronym GRACE:

G
God’s Broken Image – God’s image in us has been tarnished and corrupted through sin, yet still remains a functional aspect of our community.  Our will needs help but is not inert.

R
Reborn through Faith – God offers salvation as a free gift of grace and we receive it through faith.  In the Bible faith is normally presented as the route to spiritual life, not the result of it.

A
Atonement for All – When we share the gospel with someone we can honestly tell them that Jesus died for their sins, not just an unknown few called the elect.

C
Chosen and choosing – God’s grace may be compelling but it is not overpowering. We can accept or reject God’s will to save us.  It is this point of contact, where the chosen chooses back that loving relationship grows.

E
Empowered to mature and endure – Through the Holy Spirit within us individually and collective, God keeps us, sustains us and gives us all we need to grow in His grace.

You can check out the sermon series at The Meeting House website, click on “teaching” and then select either an audio or video format in the series tab “Chosen and Choosing.”  Most sermons run about 45 minutes; there’s a Q&A section included; you can download notes and slides; but the short movie clips aren’t included for copyright reasons.

…However, in preparing today’s little doctrinal discussion, I discovered there really is a DAISY, which was located at this website.  Who knew?

T = Total Depravity D = Deliberate Sin
U = Unconditional Election A = All-Encompassing Call
L = Limited Atonement I = Infinite Love
I = Irresistible Grace S = Spontaneous Faith
P = Perseverance of the Saints Y = Yieldedness of the Saints

Some people find this sort of discussion tiresome, but if the Christian experience involves getting to know God better and drawing closer to Him, there is much to be uncovered in his dealings with his creation.  In other words, part of the doctrine of God will be interdependent on how we understand the doctrine of man.   And of course, all this has bearing on how we interpret and explain the doctrine of salvation.   

Even though I said that for some, such as Arminians, these things are less of an issue, I think it’s important at some point along your Christian journey to evolve your own personal position, to know where you stand.  Having crossed the line of faith, it may seem moot to you at this point, but your position will say much about how you understand the nature of God.

So take a piece of paper and write down what you think. 

But write in pencil, in case you want to make some adjustments later in your Christian experience. 

~Paul Wilkinson

April 29, 2011

What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?

In the wake of the Zondervan release, Four Views on Divine Providence, since I didn’t get to read the book but consider the topic somewhat vital, here’s what reviewers are saying…

  • There are plenty of hardcore theological and philosophical issues which arise when speaking of God’s providence; issues such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the relationship between God and time, divine foreknowledge, suffering and evil, etc. Here four different theological perspectives, including open theism, Molinism, and classic Reformed thought, weigh into the debate in a thrust and counterthrust format.   Bill Muehlenberg
  • Volume contributors are Paul Helseth (God causes every creaturely event that occurs); William Lane Craig (through his “middle knowledge,” God controls the course of worldly affairs without predetermining any creatures’ free decisions); Ron Highfield (God controls creatures by liberating their decision-making); and Gregory Boyd (human decisions can be free only if God neither determines nor knows what they will be). Introductory and closing essays by Dennis Jowers give relevant background and guide readers toward their own informed beliefs about divine providence.   Publisher Blurb
  • I mentioned this “Counterpoints” series as a commendable way to study and learn about different views and that they have them on more than a dozen topics.  This is a brand new one and raises this huge question about God’s rule over the world, one of the key questions as we reflect on the heartache of theodicy.  Four evangelical authors are included and they each respond to the main chapter of the other three.  Included are views that they describe as “God Causes All Things” “God Directs All Things” “God Controls by Liberating” and “God Limits His Control”  This not only is an example of meaty theological and Bible discourse but, of course, it is immensely significant for our prayers and praise, our confidence and doubts and how we talk about grief with others.  Highly recommended, even if it may be that no one is fully right.   Hearts and Minds Bookstore

I was some astounded at how little advance material and/or reviews were available online for what I would think is a rather serious topic. (The middle “reviewer” it turned out, was just quoting the publisher.) One retail site noted that the debate gets quite heated or “intense” at times and Greg Boyd, one of the contributors noted in his own blog:

…[T]his “four views” collection is a bit idiosyncratic in that, as Craig notes in his opening essay, there are actually two versions of the Calvinist view included in this book. Not only this, but while the editor, Dennis Jowers, clearly tries to remain neutral in the Introduction and Conclusion of this book, his passionate Calvinistic convictions shine through rather unambiguously, in my opinion.

Let’s review the four options the book presents:

  • God causes every creaturely event that occurs
  • Through his “middle knowledge,” God controls the course of  worldly affairs without predetermining any creatures’ free decisions
  • God controls creatures by liberating their decision-making
  • Human decisions can be free only if God neither determines nor knows what they will be

What’s your opinion?  Does it matter?  I believe it does for several reasons of which this is one:  Our purpose, our delight and our desire should be to begin to form an understanding of how we see the ways of God.  This will eventually map on to a larger personal systematic theology which should eventually “work” inasmuch as all the doctrinal pieces of the puzzle fit to form an appropriate picture.

My personal take on this and yours may differ.  We see through a glass darkly.  (We see through glasses that are covered in Vaseline.)  And we should be open to friendly discussion with people who resolve this differently.  But our desire should be to look into the face of God and seek Him with all our hearts.   When we do that, a God-picture will slowly form that may, over time, need adjustment or modification, but as long as our go-to source is scripture and not our own reasoning, we will be moving toward, and not away from, an accurate understanding of God’s character, God’s nature and God’s dealings with His people.

For those of you for whom Molinism is a new term, here’s some highlights from Theopedia to get you thinking further:

“The most famous distinctive in Molinism is its affirmation that God has middle knowledge (scienta media). Molinism holds that God’s knowledge consists of three logical moments. These “moments” of knowledge are not to be thought of as chronological; rather they are to be understood as “logical.” In other words, one moment does not come before another moment in time, rather one moment is logically prior to the other moments. The Molinist differentiates between three different moments of knowledge which are respectively called natural knowledge, middle knowledge and free knowledge.

  • Natural Knowledge – This is God’s knowledge of all necessary and all possible truths. In this “moment” God knows every possible combination of causes and effects. He also knows all the truths of logic and all moral truths.
  • Middle Knowledge – This is God’s knowledge of what any free creature would do in any given circumstance, also known as counterfactual knowledge. It is also sometimes stated as God’s knowledge of the truth of subjunctive conditionals.
  • Free Knowledge – This is God’s knowledge of what He freely decided to create. God’s free knowledge is His knowledge of the actual world as it is.

And yes, I know some of you are now saying, “I’m glad we cleared that up.”